Preserving Sagaponack: The High Cost of Rural Flavor
by suzanne mcgee
Sagaponack today: More sprawl, fewer farms
When Paul Brennan was growing up in the sleepy village of Sagaponack in the 1960s, he remembers staring across the acres of potato plants straight down to the ocean. Even when other Hamptons communities began to attract not just artists and writers but wealthy Manhattan residents looking for a summer playground, these new arrivals largely passed Sagaponack by in favor of East Hampton, which became “Malibu East,” and Southampton, which was colonized by investment bankers and old money. Sagaponack’s farmers sold off an acre or two of land now and then to pay estate taxes; they watched and grumbled as traffic on the two-lane highway linking Southampton to Montauk, on the far east end of Long Island, grew more congested each year, but they were left largely untouched by the Hamptons “scene.”
Ironically, that may have been just what ended up transforming the little village into one of the country’s most expensive zip codes. Wealthy buyers had always been drawn to the quiet expanses of Sagaponack—when local resident and writer Linda Francke decided to construct a home on land she had purchased in the early 1980s, a builder couldn’t advise her on what she needed to get a mortgage, as all his clients paid cash. But in the 1990s, as other towns became more crowded and the scene more frenzied, Hamptons veterans like Goldman Sachs banker Robert Hurst, a longtime resident of Bridgehampton, began looking for more tranquil pastures. Hurst wanted to buy a plot of land in Sagaponack—something sizeable.
It took two years, but Hurst finally plunked down $5 million for 30 acres of farmland just off Bridge Lane, owned by a member of the Foster family, the town’s preeminent farming clan. Up went a house of nearly 18,000 square feet. Hurst began talking up the joys of real country living to his Goldman colleagues, and before long, Sagg Pond had become known as “Goldman Pond.” Lloyd Blankfein, the bank’s CEO, spends his summers and weekends at one of the many mansions that have sprung up where once the Fosters and others farmed potatoes in some of the richest loamy soil on Long Island.
What drew Hurst and the others to Sagaponack was what set the tiny community apart from other Hamptons towns. “Sagg,” as the locals call it, still has a one-room schoolhouse that runs up to fourth grade. The main street boasts only a general store (run by members of the fourth and fifth generations of the family who bought it in the late 19th century), offering freshly made sandwiches and coffee, along with T-shirts and flip-flops for the beach. Next door is where neighbors can stand and gossip while they pick up their mail at the local post office; it shares the ground-floor space of a 19th-century farmhouse building with the general store. Drive down the road and you’ll have to swerve to avoid guinea fowl raised by the Fosters; turn down one of the lanes and you’re likely to see deer bounding off into the shrubs. The closest Sagaponack comes to the “real” Hamptons is the gourmet food shop, Loaves & Fishes, near the Montauk Highway; the store’s famous $100-a-pound lobster salad signals that Sagaponack isn’t just any Hamptons community. And yet, despite the build-up in recent years, the village still offers residents the expansive vistas that Paul Brennan cherishes as much today as he did then, and that appeals to his clients at Prudential Douglas Elliman, who find those wide-open spaces hard to come by in the hedged estates of Southampton and East Hampton.
Of course, it all comes with a hefty price tag attached. Brennan calculates that the 30-acre lot Hurst bought back in the 1990s would fetch $40 million or more today. He recently sold a lot of about five acres on Hedges Lane to Sagaponack developer and builder Michael Davis, he says; Davis put up a house and sold it for $19 million. “That’s kind of… remarkable,” Brennan says, groping for the right word. “He sold another home for $22 million. Both of these were houses built ‘on spec.’” In other words, Davis was betting he would make a hefty profit buying land, building, and reselling. “This is the Hamptons real estate spec building market on steroids,” Brennan says. “These are numbers that you normally have only seen on Gin Lane or estate sections of Southampton or East Hampton.” But then, as Harald Grant, senior vice president at Sotheby’s International Realty, points out, people “feel safe” following the lead set by Goldman’s bankers and hedge fund billionaires. “They figure that these guys have done their due diligence on value.”
Although Sagaponack’s white-hot real estate market took a blow along with that of the rest of the area at the height of the financial crisis, it is bouncing back rapidly. Sagaponack still boasts some of the priciest Hamptons sales, including hedge fund manager David Tepper’s $43.5 million purchase of the 6,200-square-foot oceanfront mansion formerly owned by onetime Goldman Sachs CEO and later New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine. Corzine’s ex-wife sold the mansion to Tepper in 2010, and he promptly razed the property; construction has just begun on a new home twice the size. “The house that was ripped down was only [five or six] years old!” exclaims Francke. “It had been featured in Architectural Digest.”
Sagaponack also boasts the largest single-family home in the US: the sprawling 25-bedroom, 25-bathroom villa built by Ira Rennert in the late 1990s, containing three dining rooms and two libraries, as well as not just one but two bowling alleys. “Everyone was afraid he was going to turn it into some deluxe retirement home or something,” says one local.
Rennert’s plan to construct the 63,000-square-foot villa—larger than some ocean liners—across 63 acres of virgin potato fields threatened to drive a rift between the wealthy newcomers and the locals. He bought the land, Fair Field, in early 1997 for about $11 million, and Cliff Foster, chief of the Foster farming clan, got notice that his lease was terminated; no more potatoes would be grown on the property. When Rennert filed his plans for the land with Southampton authorities (in the dead of winter, when most of those who might have objected were back in Manhattan), they were for a single-family home and outbuildings. That meant he didn’t have to set aside most of the property as “reserve” agricultural land, a loophole in the regulations that infuriated some longtime residents.
In practice, Rennert’s compound has been less problematic than many feared. It blocked Linda Francke’s view of the ocean, but she shrugs that off. “This could have been 10 or 12 houses, and instead it’s a very quiet place that doesn’t intrude at all.” Still, the sprawling mansion is the antithesis of the more modest homes on Sagg Main, once occupied by Kurt Vonnegut and George Plimpton, or author Peter Matthiessen’s current home near the ocean. Uneasy residents decided to take matters into their own hands and incorporate Sagaponack as a village in 2005. While that means that village boards now have the final say on what gets built, it hasn’t dampened growth. Property values are still climbing, but now the Architectural and Historic Review Board can tell those buyers they need to preserve older buildings on the land they buy, even if they just use them as guest houses and construct mansions elsewhere on the property. (This procedure varies for each property.)
Planning board minutes illustrate the kind of issues that crop up. In the meeting of the Board of Trustees this past December, architects explained why the new owners of 791 Daniel’s Lane needed to truck in earth to raise the height of the house by as much as two feet: Without the extra height, they wouldn’t be able to glimpse the ocean. Mayor Donald Louchheim noted tartly that “normally one would design a house to fit the site” rather than resculpt the site to fit the house.
Still, money talks, and the newcomers tend to win these clashes. The most recent and ugliest of all was the battle royale between the White family, whose ancestors had farmed a 57-acre plot of land just off Sagg Main and running down to the ocean since the 17th century. Anthony Petrello, president and chief operating officer of Nabors Industries, decided that he liked his summer rental—one of the shingled summer cottages that shelter between the dunes and the White’s potato fields—so much that he offered John White a deal: He would buy 9.56 acres of land, giving White enough cash to leave to his family to cover estate taxes owing on his death, and enable them to hang on to the farm. Then White realized the proceeds wouldn’t cover the tax liability after reassessment; Petrello balked at paying more. The deal collapsed in acrimony, and only after a 10-year legal battle did the courts order White to turn over the acreage.
As the White versus Petrello battle made its way through the court system, the pace of development scarcely slowed. On Potato Road, where residents must spend thousands every year to combat erosion so severe that some homes have collapsed into the ocean, one house just sold for $6.6 million and another for nearly $10 million. Two blocks from the ocean and the site of David Tepper’s future mansion, a seven-bedroom, 7,500-square-foot home just sold for around $10 million. Driving along Hedges Lane, Jane Gill, a vice president with Saunders & Associates (and a former top model for Ralph Lauren), gestures to a 30-acre plot of land. “This will be gone soon,” she says; several new homes will be built here, with 25 acres set for farm use. One road over, on Parsonage Lane, a freshly painted and renovated gingerbread Victorian farmhouse sparkles—Jimmy Fallon snapped it up for $5.7 million last summer and gave it a face-lift, but hasn’t made any visible alterations.
“Everybody still wants to be in Sagg,” Gill says. “These days people are willing to pay a lot more to get the feeling of living in the old-time Hamptons. People yearn for that lifestyle; even if they still go to Nick & Toni’s for dinner or spend $100 for brunch, they want to wake up next to farmland.” The village’s insistence on preserving historic buildings and setting aside farmland doesn’t bother buyers, either; while they want to be able to build their dream home, they don’t want to feel hemmed in. “People simply want to be in Sagaponack,” Gill says.
And so do many of the locals—as long as they can figure out how. Lee Foster, the deputy mayor of the village and wife of farmer Cliff Foster, says that the recent impetus by foodies to source locally is a boon. “The push to know where our food comes from is a big help in conserving farmland,” she says, before dashing outdoors with a shotgun to chase a fox off the premises. Meanwhile, initiatives from entities like the Peconic Land Trust will help longtime farm families stay on their properties. For instance, the trust spent $6 million to acquire 7.6 acres of farmland, once owned by the Hopping family, that fronted Sagg Main Street. The fear was that a hedge fund buyer might have snapped it up and forced Jim and Jennifer Pike to close their farm stand, a summer landmark. “Oh, they have the best corn in the Hamptons,” says Gill. “My mouth waters just thinking about it.”
But the Land Trust resold the land to the Pikes for only $167,200, in order to save the farm stand. It will have been a small price to pay if it and similar initiatives manage to ease any tensions between the newcomers and longtimers and ensure that the Sagaponack both groups enjoy is preserved for the next generation.
photography courtesy of the bridgehampton historical society (slide 1, black and white); john huba (white family); jeff cully/east end fine arts services (fair field); © John Huba Art + Commerce (white)